We say goodbye to another musical hero. Manu Dibango passed away today at his home in France, apparently of complications from Covid-19.
Like many others, I knew Dibango’s music initially through the song “Soul Makossa.” I had heard it on and off over the years, but it was after delving more seriously into the history of 1970s disco in 2010 that I rediscovered the song and its connection to the early disco gatherings of New York including David Mancuso’s Loft parties. It was a B-side of a single that Mancuso found and it became an instant proto-disco hit, and on regular rotation in my own playlist in the early 2010s. It also went on to be a major influence on R&B and funk. It was instantly recognizable with the chat “Soul Makossa”, Dibango’s growling saxophone and catchy horn hook.
Dibango was originally from Cameroon – indeed makossa is a traditional style of Cameroonian music and came up in central Africa’s jazz scene, including African Jazz in Kinshasa, Congo. Over the years he has collaborated with other heroes of ours including Fela Kuti and Herbie Hancock, with whom he recorded the album Electric Africa in the 1980s.
It is jarring to hear of Dibango’s death being so connected to the current crisis, and certainly not the last. His music represents, at least for me, simpler and brighter times, the optimism and nostalgia of the 1970s, and more. RIP.
It’s one of those serendipitous moments that happen in New York. At the end of last week’s Ambient Chaos show, I received an invitation from Neb Ula the Velvet Queen to come to LadyJams is a monthly get-together where women get together and perform in randomly selected groups. I loved the idea, and especially the coincidence of this meeting; so on Friday I grabbed my trusty Arturia MicroFreak and headed out on the L train to Bushwick.
The festivities took place at Synesthesia, a gallery and art space in the apartment of Mio Nakai. Amidst objects and curios from the turn of the 20th century – and an old-fashioned bar to match – was an exhibition of sculptures that evoked both a delicate graceful quality and a confounding misplacement of human forms. It was in the midst of this milieu that Ladyjams unfolded.
I made some more new friends that evening, including Laura Feathers, Teena Mayzing, and Yana Davydova, who performed on electronics, voice, and guitar, respectively. I performed with them and others over the course of the evening in several miniature improvised sets. You can hear an example in this video.
This truly spur-of-the-moment music, as I had never performed with any of these artists before. The MicroFreak was definitely the right choice of instrument, given its versatility and immediacy (as well as being extremely light). I had some light melodic spacey touches, as well as deep bass pedal tones and various sound effects. I particularly enjoyed a call-and-response with Yana Davydova on guitar – we both were able to match one another’s melodic fragments and respond with variations that moved the performance forward. I also tried to choose sounds and notes to complement the words of Teena Mayzing and others during vocal sections.
Neb Ula and I also had a chance to perform together, as seen in the photo above and following video clip.
Although New York – and perhaps Brooklyn in particular – is an exceptionally fertile place for an event like this, I am left wondering why not try to do something similar in San Francisco? I certainly know enough women and non-binary performers to make it a possibility, so perhaps it will happen.
It is that time of year when I invariably return home to New York for a visit. And this time it began in dramatic fashion with a return to the Ambient Chaos music series at Spectrum. Perhaps not quite a return, as Spectrum as since moved to a new location on the waterfront in Brooklyn. But it was still the same concept, hosted by Robert L. Pepper of Pas Musique, with a variety of local and visiting musicians performing adventurous electronic music.
The evening opened with a duo featuring Public Speaking (aka Jason Anthony Harris) and pianist Gabriel Zucker.
The unfolded in with sparse but structured piano set against electronic sounds evoking metal machinery. Both elements started out slow and quiet with lots of empty space but increasingly got more dense and urgent. After a brief interlude, a new phase of the music began with vocals set against fast piano runs. The vocals began very expressive and plaintive but soon morphed into a complex electronic sound under vocal control. Underneath this, an incessant thudding drum emerged.
Next up was The Tony Curtis Experience, a trio led by Damien Olsen on keyboard and electronics, Jeremy Slater on guitar and electronics, and Neb Ula the Velvet Queen on theremin – specifically, a Moog Theremini with which we at CatSynth are quite familiar.
Their performance mixed long tones on theremin, slide guitar + electronics, and synthesizer pads with loud percussive moments. The early portion of the set evoked some fantastic futuristic nightclub with crystalline hits and pedal tones. But Olsen’s keyboard brought it back to the present and near past with melodic and harmonic playing reminiscent of mid-20th century cabaret as well as synth-pop of the 1980s. The theremin, acting as both sound source and controller, provided antiphonal counter-subjects to these familiar sounds; and the guitar drones glued everything together. It was a fun set, especially with Olsen’s playful performance and his use of familiar idioms.
Then it was my turn to take the stage. And I compacted the setup for travel, with the Arturia MicroFreak, laptop, Novation LaunchPad Pro, tiny modular with Qu-bit Prism and Strymon Magneto, a new handmade touch synthesizer, and Crank Sturgeon Pocket Gamelan.
I planned a slimmed-down version of my solo set from the Compton’s Cafeteria Series show in August, including White Wine and an evolving improvisation over an 11/8 groove.
Overall, the set went well – a highly dynamic performance with a lot of melodic elements, jazz riffs, and noise solos layered over rhythms. A few items misfired, but all recoverable. I particularly enjoyed the sections of melody and jazz improvisation where I floated back to the sounds of the 1970s; it seemed the audience appreciated that, too. Finally, it was also just fun to be playing in New York again after an extended break. Watching the video of the set (which will be shared soon as an episode of CatSynth TV), I particularly thought this noisier and more “electronic” version of the 2019 set worked well in Spectrum and especially with the every-changing “spectrum” of light from yellow to violet and everything in between.
The final set of the evening featured 4 Airports, a duo of guitarist Craig Chin and synthesist Nathan Yeager. Chin performed with guitar and an array of pedals, while Yeager brought a large synthesizer setup complete with a modular system.
Perhaps more than the preceding sets, they lived up to the “ambient” in Ambient Chaos. Chin’s guitar gestures were subtle as he guided the sound into the electronic arena of the pedals, and Yeager’s synthesizer sounds were complex but still lending themselves to long ideas even when the tones and timbres moved between quick and slow. From the chaotic undertones and singular and dreamy landscape emerged, with occasional ebbs and flows and punctuations.
Overall, it was a wonderful night of music in this corner of the Brooklyn waterfront, with an intimate crowd in the cavernous but cozy space. I would also be remiss if I did not give a shout out to Sofy Yuditskaya for her video projections that reflected the music on stage. I certainly hope the gap until my next performance here is much shorter than the last.
[Photos by Banvir Chaudhary and Amanda Chaudhary]
[Full video coming soon. Please subscribe to CatSynth TV to be noticed when it is available.]
Our incredibly musical two weeks that began with Herbie Hancock concluded with King Crimson’s return to the Fox Theater in Oakland. We at CatSynth saw their last visit in 2017 and were excited to hear what the brought this time around.
It was a pleasure to see King Crimson back in action again, albeit with another lineup change. This time around, Bill Reiflin was not with the group, and so there was no full-time keyboardist. His duties were taken over by drummer Jeremy Stacey, and, at times, winds player Mel Collins. Of course, Robert Fripp was there, holding court seated stage left next to his tower of gear, as were longtime members Tony Levin on bass and Chapman stickand Jakko Jakszyk on lead vocals and guitar. Rounding out the trio of drummers were Gavin Harrison and Pat Mastelotto.
The group once again made a great overview of their 50-year history. I was particularly pleased to hear “Cat Food” from the 1970 album In the Wake of Poseidon played. “Cat Food Cat Food…again!” The music is malleable and adaptable to the current band’s instrumentation and abilities. Choruses are reharmonized, as was the case with “Cat Food”; vocal numbers are re-arranged into extended instrumental pieces, as in “The Construction of Light”; new melodies were added, as in “Indiscipline”; and so on. There were also new lyrics to the chorus of “Easy Money”. The combination of the three drumsets was even tighter than the previous tour, and more nuanced as well with each playing entirely different parts in a three-voice counterpoint that occasionally coalesced into a massive syncopated thunder. It should also be noted that the drums were a bit lighter because of Stacey’s keyboard duties.
The sound in the first set was a bit challenging at times; the winds and vocals in particular suffered. Thankfully, this was all corrected going into the second set. And just when it seemed they were going to get through the entire night without playing “21st Century Schizoid Man”, they returned with the tune as their encore, with extended abstract solos and instrumental sections.
As always, King Crimson is very strict about photography during their concerts, but at the very end, they ritualistically share a moment taking pictures of the audience while we picture them. This time both Tony Levin and Robert Fripp snapped pictures of the audience as we returned the favor.
Here is a photo of the audience from Tony Levin’s blog. We are somewhere in the lower left of the orchestra.
It’s been a wonderfully musical couple of weeks for us at CatSynth. Two days in the recording studio, our recent performance…and all of this bookended by concerts featuring our musical heroes. Today we visit the first of those concerts featuring Herbie Hancock at the Greek Theater in Berkeley.
Those who have been longtime readers of this site or familiar with some of my recent music will recognize the tremendous influence of Herbie Hancock, especially his Mwandishi and Head Hunters bands of the 1970s. For a concert in 2019, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. But from the moment the maestro took the stage, I was not disappointed.
Together with his current band – Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, James Genus on bass, Lionel Loueke on guitar and multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin on horns and keyboard – he revisited many of the old classics, but with new twists. Some, like Chameleon and Cantelope Island, pretty much followed their classic forms and were a delight. Others, like Butterfly and Sunlight were quoted more subtly or obliquely, teasing us a bit through solos, chord changes, and excursions before landing on the tune’s head just long enough of us to recognize it and use it as a point of departure for the next section. This is something that we have heard Wayne Shorter do in his more recent performances as well – just enough of a hint of the original tune for us to notice before departing into new musical territory. It was pretty much everything I would hope for from this concert.
The music that I so love and admire (and try to play) but not as a museum or conservatory piece but as something dynamic and vital. He did a full rendition of Actual Proof, complete with introductory description – this piece is perhaps one of my favorites of his, in part because it is so rhythmically confounding – it is in 4/4 but the way the main riff spreads over bars, it can be hard to tell where the measures begin and end. I also enjoyed how he broke out the keytar and the vocoder from the late 1970s in several songs.
It wasn’t all updates on old favorites, as there was newer material as well. And he remains a consummate showman, giving his personal energy back to the crowd. Towards the end of the set, he led all of us in a wave while beaming from ear to ear – this then served as the introduction to a final encore jam of Chameleon where Kamasi Washington and others joined him on stage.
Kamasi Washington’s own set was also full of energy and complex music – perhaps a bit overshadowed for me by Herbie, but still a favorite of the crowd many of whom were sporting Washington’s t-shirts. He had an interesting band with two drummers (Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr) and Cameron Graves on keyboard/synth. Rounding out the band was Ryan Porter on the trombone, Patrice Quinn on vocals, and Miles Mosley on bass. Perhaps the most touching moment was when Washington’s father, Rickey Washington, came out to join the band on soprano saxophone.
The opening set featured Robert Glasper and his band. A local favorite, his music weaved together elements of jazz with hip-hop. Centered around Glasper on keyboards, his group brought together different elements such as upright bass and turntable.
Overall, the show taken as a whole was one of the best live concerts I have seen in a while, which each group building on the foundation set by its predecessor, culminating in Herbie Hancock’s musical odyssey (there was, however, no Arp Odyssey this time). Even as an even chill settled into the Greek Theater during his set, I barely noticed. As as I practiced for my own music the coming week, I couldn’t help but notice myself doing more of those chromatically rising fast runs that are so characteristic of his solos. It’s not copying, but rather influence and tribute – a subject for another article at another time.
This past Thursday, the Center for New Music launched Compton’s Cafeteria Series, a set of occasional concerts featuring transgender performers. And I was there both the cover the show and be a part of it!
For those who are not familiar with the story, Gene Compton’s Cafeteria was a small restaurant chain and its Tenderloin location at the corner of Taylor and Turk Streets was one of the few places where transgender individuals, and especially transgender women, could safely congregate. There was, however, some tension between transgender patrons and the staff, who often called the police, with arrests and harassment ensuing. In 1966, this pattern led to the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots.
In the 1960s the Compton’s Cafeteria staff began to call the police to crack down on transgender individuals, who would frequent the restaurant.Management felt that transgender customers were loitering and causing them to lose more desirable business. In response, they implemented a service fee directed at transgender individuals and blatantly harassed them in an attempt to get them to leave the restaurant. In response to police arrests, the transgender community launched a picket of Compton’s Cafeteria. Although the picket was unsuccessful, it was one of the first demonstrations against police violence directed towards transgender people in San Francisco. On the first night of the riot, the management of Compton’s called the police when some transgender customers became raucous. Police officers were known to mistreat transgender people.When one of these known officers attempted to arrest one of the trans women, she threw her coffee in his face. According to the director of Screaming Queens, Susan Stryker, the cafeteria “erupted.”
This was nearly three years before the Stonewall Inn Riots in New York but has not gotten nearly the visibility in the time since. There is a plaque on the sidewalk in front of the former site at 101 Turk Street, and there is now an honorary street renaming of the 100 block of Taylor Street as Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Way – we featured the sign in our most recent Wordless Wednesday post.
More importantly, the immediate vicinity has been recognized by the city as a “Transgender Cultural District.” As the Center for New Music is located in the heart of this new district, it seemed natural for them to host a series celebrating transgender visibility (and audibility), and I am grateful to the staff there and to my friend David Samas for proposing this and making it happen.
The show itself was a successful event featuring vary different performances, although they all made extensive use of hardware synthesizers. You can see some of the highlights in my latest video.
The evening started with a set by Rusty Sunsets (aka Cara Esten). Her performance was divided into two sections, the first featuring acoustic guitar and voice, and the second incorporating synthesizers and drum machines. Both parts were unified by Esten’s folk-song style, with a series of compositions about her upbringing in Oklahoma and loves lost and found. Perhaps the poignant was a love song inspired by the 1911 Triangle Factory fire in New York where 146 workers, the vast majority of whom were women, perished. My favorite was the final song which brought together a Moog Mother-32 and other synthesizers with plaintive but optimistic singing.
Next up was Pitta of the Mind (Amanda Chaudhary and Maw Shein Win). We performed a short set with a featured color of blue – set against the fuschia background lighting and my automated multicolor blinking lights. Musically, it had a very punctuated quality with abstract sounds from the modular and Arturia MicroFreak against some of Maw’s poems that featured open space and short lines. We mixed it up for the final piece, which had lusher and more emotive quality with longer lines and acoustic piano – these pieces are a strength for us and we always include at least one.
Then it was time for the final set, featuring my solo electronic performance. I started with the solo version of White Wine (and a cup of white wine). The Casio SK-1 was sampled and remixed in Ableton Live, with the statement of the melody and cords, followed by a cacophony leading into two distinct rhythmic sections: first a funk/disco sound featuring MicroFreak bass and a jazz piano improvisation; and then a Stereolab inspired electric-organ solo leading into a final section of tape-delayed metallic sounds (Strymon Magneto and Pocket Gamelan from Crank Sturgeon).
After that, it was on to the cat-infused and disco-and-French-House inspired Donershtik. The piece is just a lot of fun, a classic 70s analog melody (in this case on the Arturia MiniBrute) in Phrygian mode followed by playful modular improvisation (anchored by the MOK Wavewazor) going into the electric piano disco/house section.
Overall, I think this was one of the best of my live solo sets, tightly choreographed with a relatively diverse and robust setup, and well-defined and well-rehearsed pieces. Once again, structure and hard work paid off.
But I also fed off the positive energy and enthusiasm of the crowd, which brought together regular friends and fans with members of the transgender community. It was a beautiful night overall, and I look forward to both being present and helping organize the next in this series.
A bit more guitar than synth, but still cats and music. And best of all, it’s a benefit for our friends at House Of Dreams No-Kill Cat Shelter in Portland. If you are in the area, please go check it out!
It’s been a little over a week since the 2019 Outsound New Music Summit and it seems a good time to look back over all five nights of adventurous musical programming. If you haven’t already seen our summary video with highlights from all ten acts, please check it out.
The concert series kicked off with a performance by the duo B Experimental Band, a large project led by Lisa Mezzacappa (bass) and Jason Levis (drums). They have been performing as a duo for a long time, taking on different challenges as their musical relationship has evolved. The latest is bringing their improvisational focus to a large group, i.e., maintaining spontaneity and musicality of improvisation while herding cats.
What I most noticed about this set was how sparse and spacious it was. In the first piece, space played an important visual as well as musical role, with different pairs of performers scattered around the concert hall. And towards the end, the full group thinned out to a single solo line from Polly Moller Springhorn on flute. The complete ensemble also included Bruce Ackley, Randy McKean, Cory Wright, and Joshua Marshall on woodwinds; Theo Padouvas and Rob Ewing on brass; and Gabby Fluke-Mogul (violin), Murray Campbell (octave violin), Shanna Sordahl (cello), and Kjell Nordeson on percussion.
By contrast, the second set featuring saxophone quartet Social Stutter was densely packed with rich harmonies and melodies. Composer and bandleader Beth Schenck makes the quartet – which also includes Phillip Greenlief, Cory Wright, and Casey Knudsen – function as a single instrument with some exquisitely beautiful chords and melodic lines. There was also space for each of the members to shine individually, with Knudsen’s fast runs, Greenlief’s unique timbres and keywork, and Wright solidly holding down the foundation on baritone sax. I was quite taken by this performance and now inspired to write my own compositions for saxophone quartet.
We always aim for a diversity of styles of music and instrumentation throughout the week, loosely categorized into nightly themes. For example, both of the bands that could be characterized as “rock music” were on the same night, but the two groups were still quite contrasting. Gentleman Surfer, a trio featuring Jon Bafus (drums), Barry McDaniel (guitar), and Zack Bissell (synthesizers) delivered a hard-driving set – my favorite moments were those where all three played unison syncopated rhythms complete with silences that were as intense as the sounds.
By contrast, Vegan Butcher’s set had a more plaintive, cerebral quality, due in large part to composer and bandleader John Shiurba’s “January Scale” and lyrics taken from his dream state just before waking up. The scale removes C-sharp, A-sharp, and F-sharp from the available twelve tones. This provides some interesting musical challenges. For example, a song centered in the “key” of F would have to avoid B-flat (A-sharp), and some keys like D become challenging indeed! The selection of chords to work around these gives the band’s music the plaintive sound. Their final song was particularly memorable, especially the section where rhythmic chords undergird the lyrics “I’m coming down from my stilts now, baby!” I found myself singing that for days afterward.
The next night again featured two contrasting sets. First was a very spare improvisation featuring Francis Wong on saxophone and Lenora Lee on dance/movement. Wong and Lee are longtime collaborators and have been working on both improvised and larger-scale compositions for two decades.
This performance, which made use of the space around the hall as well as the stage, was extraordinarily subtle and quiet as both the sound and movement bounced off the silent space – but at the same time forceful in the message it delivered, decrying all forms of violence and discrimination against immigrants and refugees from the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment center on Angel Island to the images of mistreated children out our southern border today.
As with duo B and Social Stutter, the sparse nature of Wong and Lee’s performance was in sharp contrast to the lush landscapes of Andrea Centazzo’s solo set, with live percussion – drums, gongs, and his signature stacks of cymbals – set against both live and recorded electronics.
Centazzo’s solo performances often involve multimedia projections with the music. Sadly, this was not able to happen for this concert, but one could still “hear the images” of nature and remote places in his sounds, from the initial thundering drums to the gong array set against what sounded like singing monks.
The next night brought Polly Moller Springhorn’s much-anticipated Tomography Fortunae to the Outsound stage, or more specifically to the floor in the middle of the hall as the audience looked on from the edges. Her composition combines a variety of sounds with ritualistic movement and concept, all codified in a graphic score. The most unique element was the fact that all performers had to be named “Tom.” This comes from a longstanding observation that many of the musicians in the Bay Area new-music scene happen to be named Tom (or Matt, or David). The Toms on this occasion were Tom Djll, Tom Dimuzio, Tom Duff, Tom Dambly, Tom Nunn, Tom Scandura, and Tom Weeks.
The piece unfolded as a series of three movements, each with more elaborate patterns of motion, ritualistic drawings, and numerical interplace. Most of the music was improvised within that framework, often bringing together pairs or trios of Toms for humorous interplay leading a loud and raucous finale with everyone playing. The whole experience was fascinating and fun.
The next set brought together percussionist William Winant with Zachary James Watkins on guitar and electronics. The two had performed together before, but I still did not know what to expect. The set opened with Winant on pine cone and drum, with Watkins gradually building up high-pitched noisy sounds to fill the spaces in between. The guitar soon emerged with stronger electronic sounds as Winant shifted to his gongs and metal percussion.
The sounds are fascinating but quite loud (especially for those of us who have maintained our high-frequency hearing) – and this was perhaps the most challenging moment of the entire festival. But things settled down again into a cloud of sound mixing percussion and electronics where the two became entangled.
The final night brought two veterans of the summit and of experimental jazz to the stage. Rent Romus (also the executive director of Outsound and the festival) teamed up with fellow woodwind multi-instrumentalist Keith Kelly for Deciduous, a set that unfolded as a collection of short stories, complete with characters, magic, and mischief. They were joined by Nava Dunkelman on percussion, HeikkiKoskinen on e-trumpet, Gabby Fluke-Mogul on violin and Lisa Mezzacappa on bass.
The final set brought back Vinny Golia and his wild collection of wind instruments to the Outsound Stage. In addition the more conventional baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, he also had a contrabass flute, a sopranino saxophone, and a rare G Mezzo-Soprano saxophone (which he describes in our preview video).
Golia was joined by Miller Wren on bass and Clint Dodson (drums). Originally, our friend Steve Adams was going to join them on saxophones but was unfortunately unable to make it for medical reasons. Fortunately, he appears to be much better and back to performing since then, and we wish him the best.
It’s particularly interesting to be present all nights and hear how the different artists and styles of music follow one another on the same stage. And I am glad to have been a part of it again this year both as a listener and part of the organizing committee.